When you hear the word yoga, what likely comes to mind is a colorful yoga mat, athletic wear, spa music, and exercise. Though yoga is often seen as a physical practice associated with stress relief and fitness, there is much more to this ancient practice than what meets the eye. At its core, yoga allows us to create long-lasting life change by getting to know ourselves better and taking agency of our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing where we can. In combination with mental healthcare, yoga can help us improve our self-understanding and live empowered, healthier lives.

In order to understand ourselves at a deeper level — what makes us unique in personality, preference, purpose — yoga can be as simple as beginning with mindful observation of our own daily habits. By taking time to look at ourselves in the present, we may discover positive patterns in ourselves, and we also may become aware of habits that we might eventually choose to change over time, on our own or with the help of a mental healthcare professional. This is what psychology and neuroscience research now knows as “neuroplasticity” (from Greek, “plastos,” meaning molded or formed) — the brain’s ability to actually transform its patterns of neuron wiring and firing in response to our changing needs.

While there are naturally occurring critical periods in brain development, choosing to change our actions and behaviors may also influence the structure and function of our brains. Practices within yoga, such as habit awareness during breathing, physical postures, and stillness, can help us better “see ourselves” as we practice and gradually shift our thoughts and behaviors for the better.

Self-Observation as Preventative Self-Care

One morning, without warning, I could barely walk on my right foot — my big toe was in severe pain. I hadn’t stubbed my toe or broken it in any accident I knew of. But as I reflected about it, for the previous few months, my shoes had shown signs of wear and I kept putting off buying new ones. When I went to a foot specialist, it became clear in looking at my shoes and studying the way that I walk that I put significantly more pressure on my right foot, especially at the big toe. Slowly and gradually, I had developed sharp physical pain. Though it felt like this toe injury showed up suddenly, it was due to a chronic habit I wasn’t aware of.

Some of our mental and emotional patterns may not be so different. As thinking and emotions are not always immediately visible, we’re less aware of these experiences in our nervous system and therefore they’re easier to ignore. We might suddenly hit a point of mental or emotional exhaustion — when a family member or friend says something that triggers an outburst, or when we just can’t take another deadline being added onto our work plate — causing us to experience anxiety or even panic. Intense emotions, thinking, or actions may feel unexpected and overwhelming, but it could relate to a chronic experience building over time.

In a recent review of eight studies, yoga was associated with temporary reductions in anxiety levels in participants with situational anxiety and anxiety disorder. Given that yoga is more than physical exercise, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has various scientific studies in progress on these ancient practices to better understand how they might reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and improve sleep. When simple breathing, postures, and meditation techniques are practiced regularly over time, the short-term positive effect of yoga on anxiety and stress may even develop into a new positive habit itself.

How might self-awareness habits in yoga support our mental wellbeing? Practices such as meditation and the physical practice of postures, known as “yogasana,” are applied tools we can use to help us shed a spotlight onto our hidden chronic habits. You might notice that you rush to get to the next posture on the mat to feel more “productive,” or you might hear some of your own self-critical thoughts if you can’t get your mind to be still in meditation By looking at your patterns in a smaller yoga practice, you may observe that these patterns are also present in larger contexts in your life. Perhaps you often take on multiple activities and rush to complete them. Maybe when you give a less-than-perfect performance at work or as a partner or parent, you’re too hard on yourself.

Once we become more aware of our habits, we can accept them and eventually decide to make small, progressive changes. This may sound a bit uncomfortable and sometimes it is. With busy schedules, it can feel like an additional undertaking; we might even want to avoid discomfort. But if we continue our yoga practice, like any healthy habit — taking showers or brushing our teeth as part of ongoing hygiene — you may find that you are preventing chronic physical or emotional strain from building over time. By evaluating which activity can be taken off of your list for the week, you may find a reduction in your stress levels. By beginning to curb excess self-criticism, you may find yourself spending more hours of your day feeling happier than you did before. By practicing self-awareness, little by little we can choose to make positive changes that add up over time.

A Simple Practice of Self-Awareness

So, if you’re curious and feeling ready — let’s try a simple and short yoga practice of physical self-observation and self-study. Ready?

Pause right where you are in this moment. How are you sitting or standing just where you are? What is the posture of your back and neck? Are you comfortable, or is there any area where you are feeling slouched, twisted, or tightened? Notice the positioning of your body — perhaps you’re crossing your legs, perhaps your hands are holding a device or resting on a keyboard. Simply observe yourself where you are right now.

Now notice your breathing — do you feel like you’re enjoying full, complete breathing or do you feel like you’re holding back? Can you take a nice deep in-breath and out-breath in this moment? Take two more full breathing cycles, slowly breathing in and out through the nose or mouth. Is there anything changing in your posture as a result? If not, simply rearrange yourself as comfortably and easily as you can — if you’re clenching the jaw (a common habit), open and close the mouth to relax your mandibular joints as you breathe. If you’re twisted tightly in the legs, consider uncrossing your legs and let your feet relax onto the floor. If you’re slouched, let yourself sit or stand up a little taller, enjoying a feeling of spaciousness.

Big Change Starts with Small Steps

Starting with simple physical yoga practices like this takes just one or two minutes. Over time, they can help support positive transformation of your physical, emotional, and mental health. Like any habit, you might find yourself slouching again or find your mind wandering into self-critical thinking without realizing it, but yoga allows us to gently “catch ourselves” through periodic self-observation and adjust course when we’re on our own or working with professional support. The more moments you simply observe yourself and make a small shift, the more minutes and eventually hours in your day will be spent in better posture, restful breathing, and productive, compassionate thinking.

Originally published on Talkspace.

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